Like many romance readers, my gateway books were Harlequin Historicals – mostly regency set books with husband hunters floating around ballrooms in gorgeous dresses, navigating the ridiculous etiquette, and making a rake fall hard in love. These books spoke to the young version of me on a very familiar level. I’d grown up with close connections to the aristocracy and my family idealised our heritage. As I’ve aged, I’ve understood the more difficult aspects of the aristocracy, and cringe at the way some members of my family idealise the past.
My father is the current holder of a defunct Russian title. The Russian aristocratic system is more complex than the English one which regency readers are familiar with, however, his title is similar to a Baron. Technically speaking, my great-grandfather was the last actual holder of the title, as he held it up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, when he was forced to flee from Russia with his wife and six month old son (my grandfather).
We grew up with wild stories about aristocratic life – the travel, the gowns, the etiquette – and the characters. Uncle Nicolai who owned an electric company in Britain and was sued by Edison. A one liner in War and Peace referencing the family. Speaking French in court, and Russian to servants. The scandal of one relative marrying a serf. The incredible journey of Aunt Elizabeth fleeing the Revolution by driving across Russia, through the Gobe desert, and eventually ending up in America.
It is little wonder that regency romance had an initial appeal for me. However, as I’ve grown older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve come to realise the ridiculous privilege that comes with such history. Sure, my great-grandparents had to flee for their lives with jewels sewn in their gowns, and their post-revolution life wasn’t all roses. However, they were all highly educated, and spoke several languages, which gave them options. It meant creating a new life in another country was relatively easy. It meant the children all attended university, and these privileges of education have flowed down the generations. My ancestors left behind the money and the land, but we have other long ranging benefits.
Several events in my life have helped me understand my own privileges, and I’m continuing to broaden my perspectives on the world. I made a choice, over a decade ago, to live in a highly diverse suburb, not just culturally, but also with several friends who are LGBTI, or neuro-diverse, etc. Moving here also created a change in my reading. I stopped reading regency romances with their unrealistic all-white privileged characters, and started to read stories which reflected the life I lived.
Books I’ve enjoyed lately include:
Hamilton’s Battalion by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole
An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole (A Princess in Theory is also amazing)
The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare
Take the Lead by Alexis Daria
By the Currawong’s Call by Welton B. Marsland
Seared by Suleikha Snyder
Sweet Thing by Nicola Marsh
The Naturalist’s Daughter by Tea Cooper
I keep a list of recommendations on my website at: http://www.reneedahlia.com/recommended/ and I’m continually updating it as I read.
Reading diversely has in turn become reflected in the stories I am writing. My debut series, for Harlequin Australia’s digital first Escape Publishing, is set in 1887 across Europe, and pulls together some elements from my family and blends it into a light-hearted yarn.
The first book, To Charm a Bluestocking, is loosely based on my great-grandmother, who was one of the first women to graduate from medical school in Holland. I thought about what challenges she would have faced, and which of those resonate with women today, and this formed the crux of the story. Josephine is about to graduate when she is harassed by a lecturer. To keep him at bay, she writes to her father for a fake fiancé. Lord Nicholas St. George is more distracting than the initial problem.
The second book, In Pursuit of a Bluestocking, is a wild train chase across Victorian-era Europe with a fictional mystery based around a gold-encased bullet, a real object from my family history. One of my great (x4) uncles was shot in the Battle of Shipka Pass (1877), and the bullet was removed from his leg by his surgeon father. Placed into a gold cage, engraved with the details, the bullet still exists today. There is murder and mayhem, and a marriage of convenience with a hero, Lord Gordon Stanmore, and heroine, Dr Marie, who can’t keep their hands off each other.
The third book, The Heart of a Bluestocking, will be out in September and matches a wealthy female doctor, Dr Claire Carlingford, with an Anglo-Indian hero, Mr Ravi Howick. This book was only possible thanks to my close friendships with women of Indian heritage who loaned me books, recommended history texts, and did sensitivity reads of my book. A big thank you to Sneha, Arpana, and Surabhi. This book also has a horse racing scam threaded through it, and touches on why Claire can’t be the Victorian era equivalent of a female billionaire. The Bluestocking series has a medium heat rating.
For those readers prepared to wait for a hotter series, I’m currently writing a contemporary series set in Sydney, based around an advertising agency. The first book features a retired rugby league player with a spinal injury, Joey Mananui, and a Chinese-Australian lawyer, Zixian Tart. This book draws on the history of the suburb I live in, and the heroine plays on the idea of being ‘more Australian than Australians’ as she descends from the earliest Chinese immigrants to Australia, more than a century prior to the book’s time setting. Again, this series wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t live a diverse life and acknowledged my own privilege.
Announcements about this series, cover reveals, and future series, will be made exclusively via my newsletter (https://mailchi.mp/691a4ceb81bb/reneedahliasubscribe) and on delay via my social media.
About the Author
Renée Dahlia is an unabashed romance reader who loves feisty women and strong, clever men. Her books reflect this, with a side-note of dark humour. Renée has a science degree in physics. When not distracted by the characters fighting for attention in her brain, she works in the horse racing industry doing data analysis. She writes for two racing publications, churning out feature articles, interviews and advertorials. When she isn’t reading or writing, Renée wrangles a husband, four children, and volunteers on the local cricket club committee.
I loved The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare and I haven’t read any of the other mentioned yet. When I was younger I read the Sweet Valley High and Couples books. My grandma and aunts read Harlequin and my mom read horror.